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School board takes a long, hard look at its performance

District retreat discussions highlight problems, possible solutions

Posted: October 2, 2011 - 12:08am

The Juneau School District Board of Education took a look at its self-evaluation on Friday and sought to improve in some areas.

Michael Wilmot, president and CEO of Michigan Leadership Institute, led the board through discussion of what's important in school board and executive level success in a "world class school district." That ideal school district is something board members and the superintendent wish to achieve in Juneau. Wilmot said his for-profit organization works exclusively with non-profits and municipality-type organizations, and has extensive experience with school district leadership.

Wilmot said part of success comes from having continuity in board members and administrators as the district tries to build upon its successes. It also comes from the board and administration working as a team.

"I think it’s critical you truly function as a team," Wilmot said. "That team has extensive discussions about everything that goes on. ... It’s the day-to-day stuff that becomes more difficult. Where I would say to the superintendent, you’ve got the day-to-day stuff. The broad strokes of where it is we want to be, is something that comes from the governance."

Wilmot reviewed what strong governance looks like, and led the board through a review of its self evaluation. Board members ranked what they felt in about a dozen categories. Those included being motivated to serve for helping the children, and the board's relationship with its members and the community.

One suggestion was to perhaps have more public forums to bring the community better into touch with the district.

Board member Mark Choate wasn't so keen on public forums. He said that there were a lot of forums when the district implemented the Next Generation plan with the opening of a second high school. His disappointment with the process came when he later found that 90 percent of the people in the room were district employees. For the first three years of serving on the board, he said, there were a lot of meetings. Choate said it's time to move beyond meetings and take action.

Board member Phyllis Carlson disagreed with Choate. She said that the input is valuable and gives the board additional insight.

Boardmembers Barbara Thurston and Sally Saddler agreed with Choate, to an extent. They felt that there is only a small section of the public represented at the forums, and that when the board takes a different direction that those people don't feel like they are listened to.

"There are certain sub-groups of our population who participate very heavily,” said Thurston. "There are other groups who don’t follow at all. ... We end up with no input from wide swaths of people it would be useful to get information from."

Saddler said part of the problem is also with the district. She said during public meetings last year on budget cuts, people kept suggesting the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) testing and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) should be cut. The board firmly kept those programs. Saddler said the district isn't doing a good job of promoting the programs that are working to significantly increase achievement in the district. She said if there is difficulty in making big changes, part of it is because of communicating those changes and the reasoning to the public.

On discussion of their supervisory role over Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich, Choate believes the board’s role goes beyond one person.

"We are the community voice for education," Choate said. "We all have constituencies, let’s talk about a broader picture. It doesn’t help kids, if they go to school and no one says it’s important. Or you go to school and take your senior year off. We have to set an educational plan for the community, that’s our responsibility."

Carlson said she struggles with not seeing significant progress. She believes the reason they haven't seen that progress is because they have been unwilling to make the tough decisions and make big changes to achieve that.

Choate said there also is an attendance issue, where the students who have the poorest achievement results tend to be missing the most school. He said the tendency is to blame the student or the family, when the district also has a role.

"It may mean all of us getting out of our comfort zones," Choate said.

He said it also goes to a community-wide role, and suggested that if people see a child or teen around town during school-hours, for them to ask the student why they aren't in school and express the importance of education.

Carlson said the demographic of students who have the biggest challenge in succeeding are poor, male Alaska Natives.

Choate said there also is still a perception of racism throughout the district.

"The challenge is, if you’re going to move to a world class school district, is to reach those kids," Wilmot said. "If you want to get to that status, if you want to hit that student achievement piece, you have to develop strategies on how to reach that group of kids. You have to keep the plate spinning, you can’t ignore the rest of the students who are doing well."

Gelbrich said if they're able to reach the kids who struggle the most, the whole bar on achievement and success rises.

"As you tackle those groups, you will get a lot of push back," Wilmot said.

He said some of the push back will come from families who already don't invest as much time in their children's education as they should. Other push back will come from people with the perspective of "well they don't care anyway, so why spend the resources on them."

Thurston said the district has a whole bunch of programs with the express intent of helping struggling students — the problem is there is not a good mechanism that says which program is most effective at helping them.

Wilmot said every program has value to somebody, so when the district eliminates programs they will "tick somebody off in the process." But they have to present a cost-benefit analysis and show that the program will improve the indicators the district is looking at.

"What if we started over?" Gelbrich said, reflecting on a comment by Thurston that they can't just stop programs that are grant-funded and start anew.

Gelbrich said they actually can, but they have to do it the right way. They have to have programs that meet the intent of the initial grant and they have to make sure and communicate with grant partners — something they haven't had a good track record with in the recent past.

"If we’re clear, if we have great clarity about these are the things that matter the most to us," Gelbrich said.

He said if they have data that shows programs aren't working and were to ask grant partners and the grantee to start a program that could work better, it is possible to start over. Gelbrich said it would probably be a "breath of fresh air" to the state if a district came and said "We have data that shows what we’re doing isn’t working so we need to switch gears."

Carlson backed the discussion up and reminded them that the grants are supplemental to their initial charge to educate students.

"I think having a plan by the district to address this population with or without these supplemental resources is really important," she said. "It's part of owning all our kids in the district. I think that’s a really big piece. When I ran for the board, my kids were out of the system already. Along the way, I saw a lot of families who didn’t have a voice or a place at the table."

The board continued its focus on how to improve governance on Friday. It also was expected to focus on achievement and the Strategic Plan on Saturday.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com

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